A report released by the San Antonio River Authority on Tuesday confirmed what residents and local officials have known for years: the San Antonio River has seen an explosion of pedestrian and bike traffic since the completion of the 13-mile project three years ago.
But now the $384.1 million San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP) has even more data to back it up. The number of pedestrians and cyclists using certain trail segments has increased by 143.7% from 2013 to 2016, according to the report released Tuesday.
Nearly 1.68 million people have used the San Antonio River for activities such as biking, running, walking (1,676,321) and paddling (3,064) over those three years, the report states. In that same time frame, more than 5,000 kids and adults participated in River Authority educational events along the river.
There has also been a significant return of native plants and wildlife along the river banks. During the past year alone, more than 8,000 trees were planted along the Mission Reach.
The $384.1 million project was managed by the River Authority and funded by Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the San Antonio River Foundation. The improvement projects spanned the San Antonio River from Hildebrand Avenue south to Loop 410 South.
“One of the things that we promised the River Oversight Committee is that we would provide updates on what we’re seeing with the projects and what material we’re finding, what we have learned, what’s changing,” River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott told nearly stakeholder agencies and residents as she discussed the results of the report during a special meeting Tuesday evening. “(This is) just to keep everyone informed of all of the great opportunities that are coming from this wonderful investment that we’ve made in our river.”
The San Antonio River Oversight Committee, a 22-member group that was formed in 1998 to guide the planning and execution of SARIP, aimed its efforts at beautifying the land around the river, increasing community interaction and decreasing flooding from the river.
Community-wide events contributed to increased traffic and participation numbers on the river banks. In it's first year, the Mission Reach Flotilla Festival on April 9 drew 2,500 attendees. The River Authority hopes to make this an official Fiesta event next year, Scott said. The flotilla was scheduled to start in 2015 but was canceled due to rain.
From 2014 to 2015, the Bat Loco Bash on the Museum Reach saw an increase from 2,000 attendees to 3,500.
“We see events as another metric of (the project’s) success,” Scott said.
Of the four mission portal projects that are designed to seamlessly interconnect missions and trails, two are complete and two are underway, but remain open for pedestrian and bike access to the Spanish colonial Missions. Each portal design costs $500,000, and features original art, creative landscaping and related developments including trails.
The SARIP success report states that 32 developers have worked with the River Authority from 2013 to 2015 to address the issues of trail tie-ins and landscaping boundaries.
As areas along the river are developed, Scott said that updated and unified code language should clarify confusion over river access and property boundaries.
“We added requirements for what adjacent property owners need to do to access the trails to make sure that we have some standards for that. The River Authority is involved in reviewing those connections,” she said. “The public doesn’t know where the public property begins and ends and where the private property begins and ends … and we’re working so that those boundaries, to the public, are seamless.”
River Authority Ecologist Lee Marlowe presented findings on the ecological success of the project, which included planting 156 native plant species by hand and the report found that 97 species of plants were brought back naturally.
“We’ve significantly increased (the habitat),” Marlowe said during the presentation. “This is something that we can be extremely proud of: the changes that this project has brought the San Antonio River.”
The improvement project is currently conducting two surveys on the avian species in the Mission Reach. One, a fixed-point survey, is designed to be replicated every five years so that the results can be compared over time. The second indicator, an incidental survey, studies the bigger picture of the avian population in the area.
“The point is to maximize the impact of the information about the birds using the site. So far we’ve found 123 total species within the project,” Marlowe said. “We’ve found some significant birds using the site, showing the positive improvements that we’ve made to the bird communities with our restoration.”
The report also detailed plans for increased transportation options to access the river. The UNESCO World Heritage designation of the four Southside Missions and the Alamo that was received last July will bring a large influx of visitors to the area.
VIA will launch its VIVA Missions route on June 6, Swain said. "We have a long project underway on Espada Road, and once that project is completed in July of next year, then the bus will be able to go to all of the missions.”
(Read more: VIA Board Approves Downtown Route Changes for June)
The World Heritage Office has also worked to create uniform signage and branding along the Mission Reach to clarify trail paths and markers for visitors.
For Scott, the importance of the project boils down to the connections it is creating that will eventually tie together trails from all over the city.
“Ultimately, when all of these (improvements) are finished very soon, you’ll be able to go from Elmendorf Lake all the way to the Mission Reach through one connection,” Scott said. “It’s creating an entire network that’s a connection to our neighborhoods, our missions, to the Westside, the northern part of our downtown area and to the Medina River trail.”
To learn more about the San Antonio River Improvements Project and to download the full SARIP map, click here.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated the portal project along the Mission Reach cost $2 million per portal. The total cost of the four portals is $2 million, or $500,00 per portal.
Top image: Pedestrians walk along the museum reach portion of the San Antonio River. Photo by Scott Ball.